Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Who are these people who need kiosks?

Coming out of a Saturday shift a little earlier than I expected to, I popped into a couple of stores on the way home. One of them was a music store, the other a big box electronics retailer. I didn't buy anything at either place - my intention in both cases was to merely get some eyeballs on what they had available at each store.

At the guitar store, I was greeted when I walked in and they asked about why I was there. I also saw that they had a fair number of people in the store in various locations, so if I had any subsequent questions I could ask them. They had a lot of new things in stock, everything was well-marked with prices and model numbers so it was very easy for me to see what was new from the last time that I was there. They've done a great job to make the store easy to navigate so people can find what they want.

There certainly are a lot of musical instrument retailers online, and there are lots of products that they sell that nobody would have any problems purchasing mail order. Effects units, cables, some keyboards, stands, and maybe the occasional microphone are probably bought online every day without issue. When it comes to guitars, basses, and drums, a lot of the time people want to try them out in person before they buy them, so music stores are still doing OK having physical stores although most of them are using a hybrid business model where they have a strong web presence in addition to the store.

At the big box electronics store, my intention was to put my eyeballs on Sony's new Playstation 4. They did have a PS4 kiosk set up. They also had a display next to it showing a constant stream of Sony commercials and promos. I had thought about actually touching the controller, but the only game that anybody was playing was a soccer game that I was unfamiliar with, so I didn't see the point of trying an unfamiliar controller in an unfamiliar context. Oddly, this was the only part of the store not swarming with salespeople. I had also noticed that they had changed the back middle section of the store where they sell computers to be more like an Apple store. White furniture, places to sit down and be interrogated by salespeople, and then a slew of terminals in the back that was sort of like a sales counter that caused me to walk around it instead of behind it even though it was the same width as the rest of the back aisle. As I was walking through the computer section I though I should see if they had a plain, simple, corded mouse. If they did, it was not apparent. I then started looking to see if they had any Wacom graphics tablet products only to realize that everything they're trying to sell is a touchscreen these days, so graphics tablets have turned into a super-niche product when they were just regular niche products before.

Looking around at the store layout, I now realize that they had converted more of their square footage to kiosks and help desks for their customers and had fewer shelves for actual products. As I walked out, there was an older man with a clipboard that asked me about my shopping experience. I presume that they didn't make him wear a store shirt in an attempt to get people to give truthful answers. At first, I said that it was OK, but that I didn't get anything. He told me that they also wanted to get impressions from people that were just browsing. So, I decided that I was going to have to tell him what I thought without editing, since I felt like I was asked a direct question. So then I said:

"Seriously? It looks like you guys have turned most of the square footage into kiosks. It's like walking around in a tank full of sharks."

I politely ran away at that point.

Driving home, I started to think about it. If electronics stores are losing market share to the internet, then the  people left getting phones and computers at brick-and-mortar stores are more likely to be people that are less tech-savvy and less likely to have already researched what they want. So, the people that don't buy anything should be complaining that they don't like the store because the store wasn't designed for them.
I used to like going to this electronics store 15 years ago, but that was when the only kiosk was a cell phone kiosk, and we had the good sense to walk around it.

Strangely, I talked to the same number of people in each case. One. In the guitar store, I was greeted right away, and walked the main path of the store with no subsequent distraction even though there were salespeople nearby at every turn. In the big box retailer, I only talked to the guy with the clipboard at the end and had to make a small effort to avoid the kiosks. Since the context of the two conversations were wildly different, it made a giant change in the shopping experience for me.

As shoppers, maybe we all need to ask ourselves what kind of shopping experience we expect from a real store that we don't get from buying online, and what retailers provide those other experiences? Conversely, as providers of goods and services, perhaps we can think about how we can provide the best experience for our customers. Maybe it's a pretty showroom, or maybe it's an efficient store layout.

Good luck getting any help at the kiosks on Black Friday. I'll be home having a turkey sandwich. 

With regard to the title, you'll have to pardon my poor Jerry Seinfeld impersonation. I'm starting to think that I'm really doing an impersonation of Gilbert Gottfried's impersonation of Seinfeld anyway.

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